A diplomatic controversy has been simmering over the past few days, as Israel’s Foreign Ministry looks into whether nine members of Knesset may have signed a petition against China’s harvesting of human organs without being aware of what they were signing.

Last week the political adviser at the Chinese Embassy in Israel requested an urgent meeting from the Asia department of Jerusalem’s Foreign Ministry. The adviser cited as the reason for the meeting an article published on October 29 on the website of Arutz Sheva, the settlers’ radio station, with the headline “Israeli MKs to the UN: Investigate China’s organ harvest.”

The article reported that nine MKs from various parties signed a petition demanding that the United Nations investigate claims that the Chinese government is harvesting the organs of its opponents currently incarcerated in the country’s prisons.

According to the article, the nine MKs that signed the petition were Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi), Yoel Hasson (Kadima), Michael Ben Ari (National Union), Shai Hermesh (Kadima), Ibrahim Sarsur (United Arab List-Taal), Daniel Ben-Simon (Labor), Chaim Amsellem (Shas), Akram Hasoon (Kadima), and Talab al-Sana (United Arab List-Taal).

According to a Foreign Ministry source, the Chinese diplomat issued a formal complaint and demanded clarifications. “We were unpleasantly surprised by the MKs’ signatures on the petition,” he said, adding that some of the signatories were recently in Beijing as official guests of the Chinese government. The diplomat demanded to know whether the MKs’ signatures represent the Knesset’s policy.

The Foreign Ministry understood the incident’s incendiary potential and quickly updated the Knesset political adviser Oded Ben-Hur and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who both made contact with three of the MKs who signed the petition -- Hasson, Hermesh and Ben-Simon – to try and convince them to retract their signatures.

One of the MKs said that Ben-Hur called him and some of his colleagues to say that the Foreign Ministry had suggested composing a letter of apology to the Chinese Embassy. As a result of China’s displeasure, Ben-Hur added, the ministry believes that an MK that fails to retract his signature from the petition could end up on the Chinese government’s blacklist and never be allowed back into the country.

During the conversations with Rivlin and Ben-Hur, it became clear that the MKs were not even aware of what they had signed. Three of them said they were approached by a young man and woman who asked them to sign the petition. A Knesset probe discovered that the petitioners were from the organization Doctors against Organ Harvesting, of which Dr. Jay Lavee, a transplant surgeon and the former president of the Israel Transplantation Society – is a member.

One of the first signatories to fold was Yoel Hasson, who quickly drafted an apology letter that he passed on to Ben-Hur for translation into English and delivery to the Chinese Embassy. The letter itself testifies to how amateurish some of the MKs’ conduct was.

“Several weeks ago, I carelessly signed a document I was handed that calls on the UN to investigate the organ trade,” Hasson said in a letter obtained by Haaretz. “To my dismay, I understood that my signature, which I gave mistakenly and innocently, was being used unjustly to provoke the Chinese government and damage the Chinese people. As a result, I would like to formally apologize to the Chinese government and the Chinese people. I will once again note that the entire issue was a misunderstanding and in the coming days I plan to ask those who induced me to sign the document to remove my name."

Hermesh, who also said he did not understand what he had signed, swiftly pulled his signature and showed support for sending an apology letter. “I should have been more careful before I signed,” he told Haaretz. “I didn’t mean to start a war with a billion Chinese. I didn’t take it seriously and it blew out of proportion."

Ben-Simon also admitted he did not know who was responsible for the petition, yet stressed that he had read it thoroughly and identified with its message. “These were people from a human rights organization whose name I do not remember,” he said. “I came under pressure to withdraw my signature but I made it clear that there’s no chance I would do so and that I stand by my actions.”

After looking over Hasson’s letter, Rivlin decided to shelve it and convey an oral message to the Chinese through the Foreign Ministry. Rivlin emphasized that this was an independent initiative by individual Knesset members and is protected by their right to freedom of expression; thus, there is no need to block it.

Rivlin also said that that the Knesset is not officially involved in the initiative, so he does not intend to hold a discussion on the matter in the plenum or in one of the committees. He defended the MKs that signed the petition, saying they had no intention of attacking the Chinese government.

A source in the Foreign Ministry said that Rivlin’s message was passed on to the Chinese Embassy in Israel, but this did not put an end to the saga. Chinese diplomats, unhappy with the developments, turned to MK David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Israel-China Friendship League, and said they expect a letter of apology. They even passed on a document refuting the claims concerning organ harvests and human rights violations in China.

A Knesset source said that Rotem wrote an apology letter, in which he included entire paragraphs from the document sent by the Chinese diplomats. After some other Knesset officials intervened, these parts were omitted and the letter eventually included a statement saying that the MKs had signed the petition on humanitarian grounds only, representing their own personal positions rather than that of the Knesset. They had no intention of going head-to-head with the Chinese government, the letter said, adding that some of the MKs were considering removing their signature from the petition.

Rotem asked the MKs to sign the letter, claiming that otherwise Israeli-Chinese relations would suffer. However, at least half of the Knesset members who signed the petition refused to sign the apology letter. “I don’t remember who signed me up to this petition but I read the document and I completely understood what I was signing,” said MK Uri Orbach, who declined Rotem’s request. “There are extreme acts being carried out in China, and if they don’t let me enter there, I’ll deal with it.”